©R M ‘Bob’ Leahy
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Approximate word count: 4,890
For Diane—I hope I did your idea justice
Eight-year-old Mandy Jenkins cried softly into her pillow. She often did. Especially lately, as she recalled the way her classmates teased her.
She felt Joan hovering near her bed. Don’t cry.
“I can’t help it,” she said, without lifting her head from the pillow. “Everybody hates me. Everybody teases me. Nobody likes me.”
“Nobody,” Mandy cried. She lifted her head from the pillow, brushing her reddish brown hair from her wet cheeks. “Nobody but Toby.” She allowed her head to fall heavily back against the tear-dampened pillow. “Nobody but Toby,” she said again.
Toby’s a good friend. Remember what he said the other day?
Joan was a good guardian. Her invisible presence was reassuring.
Mandy thought back to the walk home from school the other day. “Of course I like you,” Toby Crutchfield, her third-grade neighbor, told her; his blue eyes stared into hers. “Why wouldn’t I?” He gave her a big smile that revealed his chipped front tooth. D’Nae had made fun of that, too, when D’Nae and Toby were in the same grade last year.
“Nobody else does,” Mandy said, fighting back tears.
“They just act that way ‘cause D’Nae does,” Toby said. He brushed a shock of his curly hair from his forehead. “And I don’t know why D’Nae does that stuff.”
“She’s mean,” Mandy said fiercely. “And she hates me.”
“If she hates you, then that’s her problem,” Toby said. “You hafta return hate with love. You hafta return meanness with kindness. That’s what Pastor Collins says. You’ve heard him say it a hunnerd times.”
“But it hurts,” Mandy said. “And it makes me mad.”
“I know,” Toby replied. “I get mad, too.”
“And I want to hit D’Nae. I want to pull her hair and scratch her.”
“But you never do.”
“No, I never do,” Mandy sighed. “Joan tells me not to.”
Hearing the echo of Toby’s pronouncement in her head, Mandy was comforted. As the nightly freight train whistled, she calmed down and began to drift toward sleep.
“Sit still, Amanda,” Gramma Grayson leaned over and told her. “It will be just a little longer.”
Mandy tried to mind her grandmother. She fiddled with the new, stiffly starched collar of the white blouse she wore under the navy blue jumper her dad had picked out for her to wear. She looked up at her dad, who sat on the other side of her. His eyes were puffy and red. He stared in the direction of Pastor Collins, but Mandy was pretty sure he didn’t see the gray-haired minister. She didn’t think he could hear him either.
Mandy smoothed the jumper across her lap before looking back as the minister continued to talk about her mother. He seemed to be looking at her now, so she tried especially hard to listen to him. Pastor Collins smiled at her. “Mandy, I hope you will always remember your mother was an earthly angel. And now she is an angel in God’s army of angels. She now flies over the shoulder of a newborn babe to watch over her and help her to be a good girl.”
The image of her white-robed, winged mother over the shoulder of some lucky little girl was the picture Mandy tried to keep in her mind. It was such a pretty picture. A much prettier picture than the last one Mandy had of her mother lying on the hospital bed that had been moved into the den the last time her mom came home. Mandy hated that bed and the memory of how her mother looked lying there with the plastic bag hanging over her head and the big machine nearby that beeped. Her mom was almost always asleep. She seemed to frown all the time. Her face was so thin. Her hair so dull. Mandy didn’t really recognize her. She wasn’t really her mom. Not then.
“We need to listen to our own angels,” Pastor Collins was saying. “Our angels are our links to God. If we listen, they will tell us what to do. They will help us do what is right. They will help us be pleasing in the sight of the Lord.” The minister’s gaze fell back on Mandy. He smiled down at her. “Will you remember that, Mandy? Will you remember to trust in your angel the way your mother did?”
Mandy nodded, meaning it. Pastor Collins sat down, and Mrs. Cochrane slowly straightened up and started playing something on the organ. Usually Mandy liked to watch the agile fingers of Mrs. Cochrane. The movements were so lively, belying the organist’s advanced age, which clearly showed in every other movement she made.
But today, Mandy looked up at her dad instead of watching Mrs. Cochrane. His body was shaking slightly. He was crying again. Mandy stood up and moved in front of him, reached up, and gave him a great big hug. He pulled her up onto his lap and wrapped her in his strong arms and kissed her on the forehead.
Mandy fell asleep feeling the warmth of her father’s embrace.
* * * * * *
D’Nae Solomon was the biggest girl in the second grade at Cleveland Elementary. She was the biggest kid. And she was strong. She could throw a punch if she needed to. So even the boys did what she told them to. At least, they did since she beat up Jeremy Coates when he tried to be captain of her red rover team.
Every now and again, Jeremy or one of the other boys would complain that it wasn’t fair that D’Nae was always captain. But none of them ever said it loud enough for D’Nae to hear. And while almost everyone that heard the complaint would silently agree, no one ever outwardly agreed. And everyone remembered the bloody lip and swollen eye Jeremy received the last time D’Nae was challenged for her position.
For a few weeks at the beginning of the spring term, D’Nae had teased Greg Gantry—a new kid in the class who moved from Alabama. He was smaller than most of his classmates. And he talked with a drawl that D’Nae disliked. Even though Mandy kind of liked the drawl, she was afraid to say so. D’Nae liked to exaggerate the drawl, making all her words have extra syllables as she spoke really slowly. Mandy never did that. But she never spoke up and told D’Nae not to do it.
Joan pestered her for weeks to go over and talk to Greg. But she didn’t. She felt guilty. But she steered clear of both D’Nae and Greg during recess.
At least she did until her teacher, Miss Crane, put Greg into Mandy’s reading group. Next, she paired the two up to recite a poem together. For a week, part of each reading session was spent practicing their poem. Mandy did the title. Greg gave the name of the poet. Mandy did the first line, and Greg did the second. Back and forth they went until the last line, which they recited together. Mandy grew to like her short, blond-haired classmate.
“You have to talk faster,” Mandy told him as they worked on the poem. She always finished the line before he did.
“Why don’t y’all go slower,” Greg replied. “All y’all talk too fast up here.”
“Does everybody talk as slow as you do in Alabama?” Mandy asked him.
“It ain’t slow,” Greg told her, while he tugged on his ear. “It just ain’t fast like there’s a fi-are. There ain’t no reason to get to the end of somethin’ without takin’ a breath. That’s what my momma says, least wha-ays.”
Over and over, they practiced that last line: “My angel will cheer me up when I’m sad.” By the end of the week, they started and finished at the same time. The following Monday, Miss Crane called on them to be the first pair to read their poem:
By Jessica Bousfield
My angel is the one who looks over me
My angel is the who cares for me
My angel is the one who loves me
My angel has beautiful brown eyes
My angel has beautiful black hair
My angel will be there when I get hurt
My angel will be the one that is always on my mind
He is the angel that keeps me breathing
[She] is the angel of my dreams
He is the angel that keeps me alive
My angel will cheer me up when I’m sad
The class clapped when they were done, and Miss Crane told them they did a very good job. “Do you believe in angels,” she asked them.
“I do,” Mandy replied. “My angel helps me be good—just like it says in the poem. Greg barely nodded, reddened a bit and tugged on his ear.
That very Monday at lunch, D’Nae started to pick on her. “How’s your angel, Mandy?” the larger girl asked her as she walked into the cafeteria behind Mandy.
Mandy turned and began to answer, “My angel is fine. Why wouldn’t she be?”
But D’Nae’s laughter cut her off.
Mandy looked at her in surprise. She started to survey the large, green lunchroom. Many of the students around her were staring at her. Some of them started to laugh, too. She felt the room shrink around her, as she continued to look around. She did notice Greg Gantry, sitting off to one side by himself. He stared down at his lunch, tugging on his ear. Mandy thought he was ignoring her. Mandy felt heat flush across her face. Her hands tightened into balls at her sides.
“Maybe your angel can cheer you up now,” D’Nae said.
Walk away, Mandy.
Mandy could feel tears welling up in her eyes. Everyone she could see seemed to be laughing. She wondered why D’Nae was picking on her. She wanted to hit D’Nae, to scratch her, and make her stop laughing. But she couldn’t move.
Walk away. Walk away. Walk away.
“Leave me alone!”
“What’s going on here?” Miss Crane asked, as she came closer to the circle of children standing in the corner of the cafeteria. “You need to get in line and get your food.”
“Yes, Miss Crane,” D’Nae said. She turned quickly and half-walked, half-ran to the end of the serving line. Most of the other kids turned and scampered after her. D’Nae and several of the other girls giggled once they were in line waiting to receive their trays of food.
A couple of the girls gave Mandy a sympathetic look before turning and walking slowly to the end of the line.
“Do you need to tell me anything?” Miss Crane asked.
Although Miss Crane did not seem to be upset with Mandy, Mandy did not have anything to say to her. She ducked her head and walked slowly out of the cafeteria.
“Mandy?” Miss Crane called after her.
But Mandy did not turn around.
* * * * * *
A few days later, walking home with Toby Crutchfield, Mandy stopped under the chain-link fencing that arced over the Clark Street overpass. She often stopped in the middle of the bridge over the railway tracks. She hung her arms over the rail and stared down through the diamonds of wire.
Toby, who had walked on a few more steps, stopped and studied his friend. He came back to her, turned and stared down at the tracks, too. “What’s the matter? You been actin’ funny since Monday.”
“I know it’s somethin’,” Toby said.
Mandy sighed. “It’s D’Nae,” she said.
Brushing her hair back from her forehead, the young girl looked down at the tracks. Bits of glass sparkled like gems along the rails. She sighed as the distant whistle of the afternoon train sounded. Mandy waited for the train to pass under the overpass. The metal bridge started to shake as the train approached.
The engineer waved at the pair as he neared the bridge. Toby waved back. Mandy only half-waved. Toby put his fingers in his ears as the rails screeched under the weight of the engine.
She could feel the power of the train as it rolled beneath her. She could smell the oil in the air as the train roared below. Mandy’s reddish brown hair blew across her face in the breeze caused by the racing train.
As the last of the metal squeals and rattles of the passing train echoed across the bridge, Toby unplugged his ears and asked, “What’s D’Nae doing now?”
“She’s teasing me about angels ever since Greg and me recited our poem in class.”
“Why’s she teasing you about angels?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think she believes in them.”
“That’s pretty stupid. She’s heard the same stories in Sunday school me and you been told. There’s angels at Christmas. There’s angels at Easter. Angels are always comin’ down to tell people what God wants them to do. Angels are everywhere. They are there to help us do right.”
Mandy nodded. She thought for a moment, then said, “But I still don’t think she believes in them. Why else would she tease me?”
“D’Nae has to be teasing somebody,” Toby said. “I’m just glad she’s not in my grade this year.”
“I wish she wasn’t in mine.”
“She’ll find someone else to tease,” Toby told her, giving her a big, chipped-tooth smile. “She always does.”
Mandy half-smiled back. “Sometimes I wish I was an angel.”
Toby smiled again.
“Don’t you think being an angel would be great?”
“I don’t know,” Toby said after a moment of thought. “Sounds like it would be a lot of work. And what if you got someone like D’Nae? Do you think you could make her be good? Do you think her angel gets in trouble with God when D’Nae teases people like she does?”
Mandy stared down the tracks. “Maybe D’Nae doesn’t have an angel,” she said. “Maybe that’s D’Nae’s problem.”
“I bet her angel quit. I know I would if I had to try and make her be good,” Toby said.
“Do you think an angel can quit?” Mandy asked.
“I don’t know,” Toby said. “Maybe her angel got fired ‘cause it wasn’t gettin’ the job done.”
“Wouldn’t God give her another angel?” Mandy wondered.
“Maybe nobody volunteered,” Toby said. “Maybe there ain’t any extras right now.”
“You think God ran out of angels?”
“Maybe. Mrs. Harper says there are more people now than there ever was before.”
The two friends headed for home. A block later, they came upon Mrs. Cochrane, who played the organ at church. She was sitting on the bench at the bus stop with several bags of groceries by her feet. Mrs. Cochrane lived a few doors down from Toby on the opposite side of the block from Mandy’s house. She was an old woman, older than Mandy’s Gramma Grayson. Her hair was thin and white under a dark blue scarf.
“Am I glad to see you,” she said as the pair neared her.
“Hello, Mrs. Cochrane,” Mandy said, coming closer to her elderly neighbor. “How are you today?”
“I’m all right, Miss Mandy,” she replied with a slight laugh. “But I bought too many groceries. And I am getting tired trying to get them all back home.”
“We can help,” Toby volunteered.
“Sure,” Mandy agreed. And she reached down and grabbed two of the bags.
Toby picked up the rest of them.
“I can carry some,” Mrs. Cochrane said.
“It’s okay,” Toby said. “We got all of them.”
“You know, your mother used to help me out with my groceries, Mandy. I’d see her at the store, and she would offer to take the sacks of groceries back to my house and leave them on the porch for me. Then I could walk home and not have to try and carry them. She was an angel that way—kept me from having a stroke while taking the walk my doctor tells me I have to take.” Mrs. Cochrane laughed at her own little joke.
Mandy just nodded.
While Mrs. Cochrane thanked them, they walked and talked the few blocks to the small white house on the corner where the elderly woman lived. Still, part of Mandy’s thoughts remained focused on the angel shortage. She wondered if she should ask her neighbor about it, but she didn’t.
She thought about it while she ate dinner. Her dad asked her about school like he always did, and then there was nothing but silence as they ate some chicken and salad he had picked up on the way home.
She thought about angels while she did her homework.
She thought about them that night as she went to bed. She almost asked her dad about the angels when he came in to tuck her in. But she didn’t.
“What’s bothering you, honey?” her dad asked her. He searched his daughter’s face and eyes.
Mandy was quiet for a long moment. Her dad continued his soulful search of her face and waited with the patience he always had, whether Mandy was quiet, like she was now, or words spilled out of her mouth almost too fast to be heard.
“I was just wondering about something,” Mandy said.
“Something you want to ask me about?”
“No. Not right now.”
He smiled. “You have the same look your mother had when she was puzzling through something.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Do you know the look I mean?”
“Yes. I think so.”
He tugged the blanket up under her chin and gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder before turning to leave the room. At the door, just before he turned out the light, he looked back at her and said, “I’m here if you need to talk, Mandy.”
Mandy felt alone in the darkness. But just for a second. Then she felt the reassuring presence of Joan. “D’Nae needs an angel,” she told her.
D’Nae has an angel.
“Are you sure?” Mandy asked Joan.
There was no answer.
“D’Nae needs a better angel.”
“D’Nae needs to listen.”
The nightly freight train sounded its whistle as it started through town. “I’m going to pray for a better angel,” Mandy said at last.
As she tried to fall asleep, Mandy tried to picture the puzzled look on her mother’s face her dad had mentioned.
There was a slight curl to the left side of her lips, and a slight furrow in her brow. And even though her eyes were focused elsewhere, there was a twinkle about them. Mandy could almost touch her mother’s face. She sat on the bench by the roses in the back yard. Her brown hair had a slightly reddish tint in the afternoon sunlight.
Mandy sighed as she rolled over and went to sleep.
* * * * * *
At lunch on Friday, D’Nae Solomon was standing with three other girls near the end of the serving line. None of them had picked up their meals. Mandy could hear them giggling as she approached carrying her tray of spaghetti, an apple, and salad. She tried to swing around the small group.
The next thing Mandy knew, she was spread-eagled on the floor. D’Nae stood over her, laughing. The whole lunchroom was laughing. “Didn’t your angel catch you?” D’Nae asked.
“That was me-un, D’Nae. Even for y’all.” Mandy was surprised to hear Greg Gantry speak up behind her.
“And what are you goin’ to do about it?” D’Nae asked, turning and glaring at the small, blond-headed boy.
“Leave him alone,” Mandy said, getting to her knees. “He didn’t do anything to you.” She balled her fists and stared at the larger girl.
This is not the way.
Mandy clenched her teeth. She watched as Greg retreated to the other side of the cafeteria. Still on her knees, she glared at D’Nae.
Take a deep breath. Getting mad doesn’t help.
“Run, you big baby,” D’Nae called after him.
“You need a better angel watching over you,” Mandy said, getting to her feet. A couple of other girls helped her pick up her spilled tray. “If I was your angel, you wouldn’t be such a bully.”
“What?” D’Nae asked.
“I just wish there were some way for me to be your angel. Maybe I could make you be nice,” Mandy said. Then, before D’Nae could reply, she turned and left the cafeteria.
Greg Gantry, his head ducked down, tugged on his ear and watched Mandy go. He gave a backward glance toward D’Nae, but quickly turned back to stare down at his tray of food when he caught her staring right at him.
“What’s going on here?” asked Miss Crane, as she came from the other side of the cafeteria.
“Nothin’, Ma’am.” D’Nae said. “Mandy just spilled her tray, and then she ran out of the lunchroom.”
Miss Crane gave D’Nae a strange look. “If you girls have already eaten, you need to go out to the playground.”
Two of the girls who were standing near D’Nae ran to the end of the serving line. D’Nae and the two others slowly walked across the lunchroom and down the hallway through which Mandy had disappeared. The cafeteria was very quiet until D’Nae was no longer in sight. Then there was a soft buzz of conversation all across the room.
Mandy usually waited for Toby Crutchfield by the flagpole in front of Cleveland Elementary school. They walked the six blocks home together. Most of the students lived further away, and they took the buses that waited in a long line of yellow on the south side of the old, brown school building.
But Mandy didn’t wait for Toby today. The second she was out the door, she half-walked, half-ran down Forster Avenue toward the Clark Street overpass.
Greg Gantry noticed that Mandy had skipped past the flagpole and was hurrying down the street. He usually took the bus to and from school; but today, he followed Mandy. He only lived a few blocks further away from school than Mandy and Toby. He had to run to keep her in sight.
Mandy left the sidewalk as she approached the overpass.
Where are you going?
There was just enough room for her to squeeze between the fence that arced over the walkway and the metal bumper guard that ran along the top of the hill along the edge of the street, after she took off her pink and blue backpack and slid it through the opening. She put the pack back on before she headed down the hill. There was a well-worn footpath that led down the embankment to the railway tracks that ran under the bridge. It was a steep path, and a little slippery. And, despite being as careful as she could be, Mandy slid the last several feet down the path to the rocky, flat ground of the rail bed.
What are you doing down here?
The smells of stale beer and urine assaulted her. She sneezed once, and then again, as the pungent odors engulfed her. Beer cans, broken beer and whiskey bottles were everywhere along the tall grass that ran at the base of the hill.
You shouldn’t be here.
Once she recovered her balance, Mandy tried breathing through her mouth, hoping to be rid of the strong smells, but she found she could taste the odors when she did. Deciding the taste was worse than just the smell, she closed her mouth. She looked down the tracks and listened. She did not hear the train. She could hear the cars passing overhead. She thought she heard someone calling to her, but she didn’t look around. No one knew she was here. She didn’t want anyone to find her. She moved under the bridge, feeling the concrete wall with her hand as she slid into the shadows.
You need to go home.
Mandy jumped when Toby grabbed her.
“What are you doin’ down here?” he asked.
She turned, and saw her curly-haired friend standing just under the edge of the overpass. And, just beyond him, she saw Greg Gantry, too. As he stared in the opposite direction down the track, he pulled on his ear.
“What are you doing here?” Mandy asked Toby.
“Greg told me you came down here. He said he saw you climb through the fence.”
“Why did he follow me?” Mandy asked. Then, moving away from the wall a bit and looking past Toby, she asked her blond-haired classmate, “Why did you follow me?”
Greg is helping me watch over you.
“Y’all didn’t wait for Toby like you always do.”
“That’s because I have something I hafta’ do,” Mandy yelled.
“What do you hafta do down here?” Toby asked.
“It’s none of your business.”
Amanda Marie Jenkins—this isn’t like you.
“D’Nae tripped her at lunch and spilled her tray all over the cafeteria,” Greg said, taking a tentative step toward Toby and Mandy.
“Did you get hurt?” Toby asked.
“Mandy said she wished she was D’Nae’s angel. She would make her act nice,” Greg said. “I bet she needs more than one angel to make her nice,” he added.
Toby studied Mandy’s face for a minute. “What were you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” Mandy said. “I wanted to do something. Maybe I can be D’Nae’s angel.”
“How?” Greg asked, now just a step behind Toby.
“Yeah, how?” Toby echoed.
Mandy didn’t say anything. She just looked out across the tracks.
“You think God will let you be an angel if you did that?” Toby asked a moment later.
Listen to Toby.
The whistle of the approaching train could be heard in the distance.
“We gotta get out of here,” Toby said, grabbing Mandy’s hand and turning back toward the footpath. Greg turned and ran toward the hill and started up without waiting for the other two.
Mandy resisted Toby’s tug on her.
Go with Toby.
“Come on,” Toby said. “It don’t work that way.”
“No. You can’t kill yourself and then expect to be somebody else’s angel,” Toby said. “Now come on.”
The rattle of the train grew louder. Greg’s yell to hurry was almost drowned out by the growing screech of the engine on the rails.
At the bottom of the hill, Toby pushed Mandy in front of him up the footpath. They were only part way up the embankment when the train whistled and started to rattle past them and under the bridge. The pair continued up the hill. Greg waited for them at the top. The last cars of the train were just passing into the shadows of the overpass when Mandy and Toby reached the very top.
There were tears in Mandy’s eyes when she stopped near Greg.
He looked at her, then ducked his head and tugged on his ear.
“What’s the matter now?” Toby asked, when he came up beside her.
“It’s just…D’Nae’s so mean.”
“I know,” Toby said. He brushed a brown curl from his forehead and gave her his chipped-tooth smile.
Mandy felt no better.
“Remember how I got this?” Toby asked, pointing to the chipped tooth.
Mandy shook her head.
“Last year, when I was in the second grade, D’Nae tripped me out at recess when I was trying to catch a ball.”
“I don’t remember,” Mandy said.
“Maybe you missed school that day. With your mom sick, you were gone a lot.”
“D’Nae tripped y’all, too?” Greg asked.
“What did y’all do?”
“Tried not to cry,” Toby said.
“I don’t think you told me,” Mandy said.
“You know what Pastor Collins says—if you can’t say somethin’ nice….”
“My momma told me not to fret none over D’Nae,” Greg told them as stood at the edge of the fence, the rattle of the train fading as it rolled down the tracks. “There’ll always be someone bigger’n her come along and put her in her place. There’s always someone bigger.”
Greg’s mother is right.
“We best be gettin’ home, y’all,” Greg continued, turning toward the gap between the chain-linked fence and the bumper guard. He reached down and picked up his Scooby Doo pack as Toby followed him to the sidewalk. Toby’s Spiderman pack was at Greg’s feet. Mandy took off her pack and pushed it through the opening before sidling through herself.
The trio walked in silence for a block.
“You need help again, Mrs. Cochrane?” Toby asked.
Mandy looked up, and there on the bench where they had seen her the other day was Mrs. Cochrane.
“No, not today. I went to the doctor’s office. Not the grocery store,” the white-haired woman said. “You’re just angels to ask, though. I just stopped for a short rest.” She shifted her gaze from Toby to Greg. “And who is this fine young man?” she asked, with a nod to the small, blond-headed boy.
“This is Greg Gantry,” Mandy said. “He’s new in my class. He’s from Alabama.”
“So they have angels all the way down in Alabama, too,” Mrs. Cochrane said, taking Greg’s hand.
“I’m not an angel,” Greg said, turning red.
‘Of course you are. Mandy wouldn’t have anything less than an angel for a friend. And I would be happy to have you walk me home.”